Is Crime Getting More Organized in Venezuela?

David Smilde  

[The following is a translated and edited version of a presentation I gave to an ad hoc, off-the-record discussion group last week in Caracas. The first 650 words or so are rather academic. If you want more Venezuela-specific analysis, jump down to the break following the asterisks]

Let me begin with the idea, not particularly new, but important as a foundation for my analysis, that violence is a form of social interaction in which a person or group seeks to dominate an other through physical aggession or direct threat of physical agression. Violence is a way to order or reorder social relations and is most common when these social relations are in play, in other words in conditions of relative equality. Hierarchical, unequal relations, are generally pretty stable and peaceful. Violence is most likely to occur when the question “who’s in charge?” does not have a clear response, or when the existing social equilibrium is unstable and can easily be challenged.

Work in process by Josefina Bruni Celli of IESA shows how, over the course of forty-two years there is an extraordinary correlation and direct relationship between oil revenue and violence. The higher Venezuela’s oil revenue, the more the state invests in its citizens, the more poverty and inequality decline, and….the more violence there is.  

From a common sense point of view this is paradoxical—this is why we called the conference Veronica Zubillaga and Rebecca Hanson and I organized at Tulane last October “The Paradox of Violence in Venezuela.” Our natural tendency is to think people are more happy and less prone to violence if they are equal and there is less poverty. They may indeed be more happy, but violence really has little to do with whether people are contented or not. Rather it has to do with their efforts to gain control over their social context.

Violence can be emotional and passionate, of course. And this is the principal way in which people tend to think about violence—a person who is frustrated or has repressed emotions explodes. However this is probably the least important type of violence for understanding what is going on in Venezuela. Much more important is that violence can be instrumental. It is a form of interaction that seeks to order or reorder social relationships, conslidate nascent relationships or reinforce weak or threatened relationships.

However, it should be pointed out that the distinction between emotional and instrumental violence is tenuous because, as many scholars of violence have argued, developing a reputation for the exercise of arbitrary, disproportionate or “irrational” violence can itself be very rational. What looks emotional and disproportionate can actually help an indivdiual or group consolidate its reputation.

We can go further and suggest that violence, like any social interaction, has a concrete element that is restricted to the interaction itself, and a ritualistic element that aims at public dramatization and definition of specific social relations–most often the social location of the victimizer, and the social location of the victim.

So the question I have been asked to address is whether we are seeing an increasing level of organization in crime in Venezuela. I believe we are, because of the type of violence we are seeing. Although I should say that I see factors that are working to organize and factors that are working to disorganize.

We can speak of three types of social organization that happens in the process of iterated criminal activity. First, at the most basic level we can speak of the organization of criminal actors. Instead of the solitary criminal or the pair of thugs on a motorcycle, criminal actors can develop networks and groups of five, ten or hundreds of people to take on more complex crimes. Second is organization between criminal networks. Gangs, groups, and mafias can coexist in relative peace when they develop agreements amongst themselves regarding territories or markets. Third, criminal groups can reach agreements with state authorities. The police can agree to allow crime to exist in exchange for kickbacks and, usually, the following of certain norms.

Each one of these types of organization can be completely peaceful. In fact, in general terms, crime is less violent when it is more organized in these three ways. But of course that does not mean it is violence-free. Indeed, when crime is organized it often engages in large scale instrumental-dramatic violence that seeks to establish or reestablish levels of organization and equilibriums.

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There are a couple of tendencies in Venezuela that suggest to me that we are seeing an evolution in violence that indicates higher degrees of criminal organization.

First, we are seeing more massacres in which numbers of people in or near criminal groups are savagely murdered. This type of spectacular violence has the purpose of intimidating and demonstrating the dominance of the network of perpetrators over the network of victims. This type of violence is typical of battles between criminal networks, but also in the consolidation of a networks hegemony over a specific territory or market. Just this month (March) we have had two important cases of this.

On February 4 at least seventeen and possibly twenty-eight people were executed near an illegal gold mine near Tumeremo in Bolivar. This apparently was not a battle between criminal networks but the use of spectacular violence by the local leader of the gold mafia, alias “El Topo,” to reinforce his local hegemony. In this area illegal mines are controlled by by local criminal gangs who essentially extort the miners of 20-30% of their production in exchange for protection and for keeping the peace. They essentially work as a sort of parallel government in an area in which the government presence is weak and corrupted (if you can get past the dramatic music, this Discovery Max documentary actually does a good job portraying how Venezuela’s gold mafias work.)

We also had a massacre of ten people in El Valle in a case in which three criminal gangs joined forces to eliminate the gang of “Franklin the Minor.” This was a typical case of a battle between criminal groups for hegemony over territory or markets.

As well we are seeing spectacular attacks on police. Keymer Avila has done some great research refuting that there has been a tremendous increase in attacks on police and that they are motivated by robbery of their firearms. He shows that in seventy percent of cases police that are killed are not on duty and not in uniform.

Nevertheless, we have seen more spectacular attacks on police—not cases in which they are caught in a shoot-out because they confronted people committing criminal acts. Rather we have seen attacks or ambushes by criminal gangs. In March we had an officer of the Caracas Police and his son ambushed and killed in the barrio called Los Sin Techo in El Cementerio. It was not in the line of action nor was it a simple robbery. Rather, he was identified by the local criminal network and they activated to ambush him. And in the past year we have had numerous cases in which police stations, patrol cars or road blocks have been attacked with heavy weapons, including grenades. Attacks on this scale indicate efforts in which the relationship between the police and criminal networks is changing. Either the police are trying to crackdown on the gangs, or more likely, they are trying to dominate or compete with criminal gangs.

What is the causal explanation of these symptoms of increased levels of organization of crime in Venezuela?

First is the decadence of the state and its legitimate monopoly of power. The very admirable effort at police reform and gun control that ran from 2008 to 2014 is dead, or at least has been put on hold. What was to be a civilian model of policing is now controlled from top to bottom by military officers and has returned to Venezuela’s traditional military forms of policing. The latter have been proven ineffective time and again but have strong public support.

We can add to this an inflationary crisis which makes police salaries laughable and mean that the only way police officers can get by is through involvement in illicit activities—either being involved in crime itself or, more commonly, receiving payment to let it occur. The result is an overall lack of effectiveness in carrying out the law and obliging the citizenry to fulfill it. This is giving over space to illicit markets not only for drugs but crimes such as kidnapping, contraband, and extortion of multiple types.

Second, we have an increasing use of military plans. The Operación Liberación del Pueblo (OLP) is only the most recent of the militarized plans aimed at reducing crime. In 2010 we had the Bicentennial Security Effort (DIBISE). In 2013 President Maduro began the Secure Fatherland Plan (PPS). But the OLP has distinguished itself as the most violent and destructive of all of the plans. All of these plans work in a military idiom, carrying out what are essential invasions of barrios reportedly dominated by criminal networks, violating numerous human rights in the process. They work without warrants, without vigilance and effectively have license to carryout capital punishment.

What can be said is that the soldiers used in these operations are not locals and have little historical relationship with local networks. These operations without a doubt are able to kill or arrest members of criminal networks and thereby alter the existing equilibrium within criminal groups, between them, and between them and the authorities. When the OLP withdraws after a day or two, an often violent process begins whereby criminal networks seek to reestablish control, organization and agreements. After an OLP incursion criminal groups also begin to organize in order to confront the threat posed by security forces, by whom they feel betrayed.

Finally, economic crisis can have contradictory impacts on crime. Often times, in Venezuela and elsewhere, crime and violence actually decline with economic downturns. But it can also lead to an increase in organization in the short term. An excess of people dedicated to crime and a reduction of available resources means greater consolidation of networks and greater organization to extract scarce resources.

And the actual character of the economic crisis matters. It is not just a crisis of declining oil revenues but a crisis of pricing—the price of foreign currency, of gasoline, of electricity and basic consumer goods. All of this ends up leading to a robust parallel economy with larger-than-usual opportunities for organized crime.

In sum, the root causes of the increasing organization of crime in Venezuela is the increasing deterioration of the state and economy. “Anomie” has become a favorite term of Venezuelan commentators, but misses the mark. Anomie refers to an absence of social structure, a vacuum of social relations that leads to a war of all against all. We are indeed in the presence of an absence of desireable and effective state action and a well-functioning economic structure. But the state is actually quite large, there are more police and soldiers than ever, they kill and incarcerate more people than ever before, and considerable revenues are still flowing into Venezuela. It is not so much absence as dysfunctional presence that is at play.

It is an important distinction because using the idea of “anomie” underestimates the problem of reform, and thinks that simply pushing forward a “tough-on-crime” crackdown will suddenly provide structure to chaos. In reality, any reform will confront the fact that criminal activity that is in fact highly structured, has articulated interests and considerable resources, and will resist violently.